This year, we’re all wondering what our holiday dinners will be like. The thing that all holiday dinners have in common is tradition, and this year is anything but traditional. It’s hard to imagine what it will feel like to sit at a groaning table surrounded by mostly empty chairs. To put it all in context, I’m revisiting an article I wrote in different times, years ago (for Leites Culinaria, when I was their Food History Editor), and adjusting it to suit our current situation.
When, on Christmas morning, Scrooge wanted to mend his ways, he sent an errand boy to buy the biggest turkey available, “not the little prize turkey, the big one.” In Victorian times, as today, nothing said holiday like a big roast, and Scrooge’s surprise for the Cratchit family conveys the ultimate in celebration. But how did these long-held beliefs about holiday food take root?
To understand the importance placed upon such types of meals, we turn to French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. According to him, the fundamental difference between the ordinary meals we serve to our immediate families and those we make for company or during holidays is that ordinary meals are boiled not roasted. Going back to at least the Middle Ages in Europe, large cuts of meat (those deemed suitable for roasting) only found their way to the kitchens of the very wealthy — at that time, the nobility. Consequently, to offer roasted meat to guests was to confer noble status upon them.
Lévi-Strauss’s notion also reflects the reality of French kitchens in his time: most didn’t contain ovens. For such special occasions as Christmas, or the arrival of honored guests, large stuffed birds or carefully larded haunches were carried to the local boulangerie for roasting in huge, bread-baking ovens. In light of this, I would argue that it isn’t the cooking method, itself, but the extra effort expended that gives special-occasion meals their higher status.
One of the primary functions of holidays is the promotion and affirmation of group cohesiveness. The shared memories and rituals that define our families — and our societies — are renewed and restored during the preparation and eating of traditional foods. The essential ingredient in any Thanksgiving meal is its invariability. Other holidays, like Christmas, allow for some experimentation, but the Thanksgiving meal is a ritual that is performed with absolute adherence to a family’s traditions.
It’s curious then that the menu for Christmas dinner, a mere month after Thanksgiving, often repeats certain foods. Some items appear on both menus precisely because they’re family favorites, but others take their place on the table due to societal traditions that extend farther back than the immediate generations. For example, many details of American Christmas celebrations are based upon English models such as the Yule log, the repetition of seasonal songs, and, of course, the annual retelling, or re-televising, of Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” But because the English don’t celebrate the American Thanksgiving feast, a roasted turkey at Christmas doesn’t seem as redundant in England as it does on our side of the pond.
In addition, though the pairing of sweet and savory on the same plate is unusual — the English usually keep them separate — it isn’t unknown. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, immediately preceding the age of exploration and the colonization of America, such sweet-savory combinations were common. The food traditions brought by the early colonists were still those of earlier Europeans. Consequently, if your holiday meal is intended to serve as a ritual reenactment of ancient ways, cranberries make perfect sense. In western tradition, only roasted meats are normally served with a sweet side dish: leg of lamb with mint jelly, glazed ham with pineapple, or roast goose with red currant jelly. While these aren’t always holiday meals, they’re generally reserved for special occasions. Likewise, it should be noted that these celebratory meals often end with another ancient pairing of sweet and savory, fruit and meat: the mince pie.
In recent years, the pairing of fruits and meats has become more common, largely because of the increased popularity of non-European cuisines. The Chinese, for example, don’t usually save room for dessert because each of their dishes balances the four basic flavors: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Most Americans order sweet-and-savory dishes at non-western (what used to be called “ethnic”) restaurants, and they’re beginning to enjoy them at home as well.
Perhaps in keeping with this broadening of the American palate, and of a more general interest in our history and cultural genealogy, adventurous cooks are experimenting with much older cuisines. Historical re-enacters strive to create “authentic” foods at mock Revolutionary and Civil War battles, and members of the Society for Creative Anachronism reproduce as accurately as possible the cooking of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
The image of ancient eating habits is changing. Most of us now know that historic meals didn’t consist solely of gruel (for the peasantry) and giant haunches of roasted game (for the elite). The food of the Middle Ages and Renaissance — at least for the well-off — was rich and varied, with exotic ingredients, elaborate preparation and presentations, and a level of conspicuous consumption that could be the envy of today’s fashionable foodies.
Just as our knowledge of our kitchen heritage is increasing, today’s cookbooks are beginning to look for ways to incorporate that knowledge into modern cooking. This isn’t cultural appropriation, but rather chronological-fusion cooking. It’s is our own culinary heritage, revived and recharged after 400 years.
What better way to celebrate Christmas and reconnect with our collective past than by making a classic English recipe? The extra effort spent on this dish communicates to family (and friends, if invited) that they’re special and honored. It says, as did the Bard of Avon in As You Like It, “Sit down and feed, and welcome to our table.” However, in keeping with modern tastes, let’s set aside the turkey — with apologies to the reformed Scrooge — and revisit another ancient treat, at once savory and sweet.
Francine Segan adapted a receipt from Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook, published in 1660, in Oliver Cromwell’s England. It would have been one of twenty first courses for a Christmas dinner — followed another nineteen second courses. The Center for Disease Control recommends that our holiday meals be limited to our immediate family, so thirty-nine courses might be a little extravagant for this season.
Roasted Pork with Herbs and Grapes
Dash nutmeg, freshly grated
1 Tbsp. salt
1 tsp. pepper, fresh ground
1 cup flat-leaved parsley, finely chopped
2 endive stalks, finely chopped
½ cup assorted fresh herbs (mint, rosemary, sage, savory, or thyme) , finely chopped
½ cup currants
½ cup seedless red grapes, quartered
½ cup seedless green grapes, quartered
1 pork loin (about four pounds), butterflied
12 thin slices pancetta (about four ounces)
15 whole cloves
4 sprigs fresh rosemary, quartered
Preheat oven to 450°F.
• Combine currants, endive, grapes, herbs, nutmeg, parsley, salt and pepper.
• Spread the mixture down the middle of the butterflied pork. Roll it tightly and tie in several places with kitchen string. Cover the pork with pancetta slices, held in place with cloves and rosemary sprigs.
• Roast for fifteen minutes.
• Reset oven to 350°F, leaving it open for a few minutes to cool quickly.
• Roast for about an hour, until the internal temperature at the thickest point is 140°F.
• Remove from the oven, tent with foil, and allow it to rest for ten minutes before slicing.
Slightly adapted from: Segan, Francine. Shakespeare’s Kitchen: Renaissance Recipes for the Contemporary Cook, New York: Random House, 2003.
Gary Allen’s most recent book is Sauces Reconsidered: Aprés Escoffier, a volume in Rowman & Littlefield Studies in Food and Gastronomy. You can find more of his speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) put in his mouth — his own foot being a prime example of the latter — on his website: onthetable.us